Tourism desperately wants a return to the ‘old normal’ but that would be a disaster

An Australian professor of sustainable tourism has said that it’s time the global industry seriously reconsiders its business model, and overall purpose, in a post-pandemic world. Before COVID-19, international aviation emissions were forecast to potentially triple between 2015 and 2050. Likewise, emissions from the cruise ship industry were also growing.  The “mass global tourism is emblematic of this voracious, growth-at-all-costs mentality.”  The UN now says it is the time to “rethink how the sector impacts our natural resources and ecosystems”. But the sector is not looking to transform, and its plans to get people travelling again make little mention of environmental impact, in the short or long term.  The “aspirational” goal of IATA to improve global fuel efficiency by 2% each year until 2050 is, by its own admission “unlikely to deliver the level of reduction necessary to stabilize and then reduce aviation’s absolute emissions contribution to climate change”. Much could be done to reduce the impact of global tourism, including – as suggested by the UN Sustainable Development Group:  a frequent flyer levy; incentives for domestic tourism; restrictions on flight advertising; no more airport expansions in high-income countries; better transport alternatives to aviation.



Tourism desperately wants a return to the ‘old normal’ but that would be a disaster

February 19, 2021

By Susanne Becken (Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Director, Griffith Institute for Tourism, Griffith University, Australia)

Disclosure statement – Susanne Becken receives funding from the Australian Research Council.  And see more about funding etc ….

With each passing day, the grave future of Earth becomes more stark. The disruption of COVID-19 has not been enough to shift the trajectory, nor has it prompted polluting sectors of the economy to reconsider the harms they inflict on the planet.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the global tourism sector. Before COVID-19, international aviation emissions – already a major contributor to global warming – were forecast to potentially triple between 2015 and 2050. Likewise, emissions from the cruise ship industry were also growing.

The pandemic itself can be traced back to humanity’s relentless damage to nature. And mass global tourism is emblematic of this voracious, growth-at-all-costs mentality.

Tourism brings many economic, social and cultural benefits. But it’s time the industry seriously reconsiders its business model, and overall purpose, in a post-pandemic world.

We can’t return to normal

The United Nations is among many voices urging the global tourism industry to address its many sustainability challenges in the wake of COVID-19.

The UN says it recognises tourism’s important role in providing incomes for millions of people. But in a recent policy brief, it said now is the time to “rethink how the sector impacts our natural resources and ecosystems”.

Unfortunately, there’s little evidence that global tourism is looking to transform. For example, the International Air Transport Association is clearly seeking to return to the “old normal”. Its resources guide to support airlines during the pandemic and beyond examines ways to restart the industry, but makes no mention of environmental sustainability.

Similarly, the World Travel and Tourism Council’s 100 Million Jobs Recovery Plan calls on nations to remove barriers to travel, saying traveller confidence is “critical to the sector’s survival and recovery”. Sustainability rates only a passing mention.

In Australia, the federal government is passing up opportunities to encourage tourism to reconfigure towards a more sustainable model. For example, the Building Better Regions Fund offers A$100 million for tourism-related infrastructure projects that mitigate COVID-19’s economic impact. However, sustainability does not form part of the assessment criteria.

The industry’s immediate focus on recovery is understandable. But the lack of a long-term environmental vision is damaging to both the industry and the planet.

A job half done

Pre-COVID-19, the global tourism and travel industry had begun to address some sustainability challenges.

For example, international aviation is seeking to improve global fuel efficiency by 2% each year until 2050. But this target is “aspirational” and even the International Civil Aviation Authority has conceded it was “unlikely to deliver the level of reduction necessary to stabilize and then reduce aviation’s absolute emissions contribution to climate change”.

Current technological constraints mean decarbonising aviation is challenging. An expected future increase in flight demand will only add to the problem. Globally, 7.8 billion passengers are expected to travel in 2036.

What’s more, tourism’s damage to the environment extends far beyond climate change. It adds to marine plastic pollution, degrades habitat and leads to a loss of wilderness and natural quiet. The industry’s resurgence must address these and other harms.

Read more: Major airlines say they’re acting on climate change. Our research reveals how little they’ve achieved

A vision for the future

People travelling outside their normal context are open to new experiences and perspectives. In this way, tourism presents an opportunity to encourage a new connection with nature.

So what should the future of tourism look like?

I and others are advocating for a more sustainable tourism sector that’s vastly different to what exists now. Travel should be closer to home, slower, and with a positive contribution at its core. In this model, all erosion of natural, cultural and social capital ceases.

Practices under the model (some of which already exist at a small scale) might include:

  • more travel to regional and local destinations, involving shorter distances. Under COVID-19, the trend towards such tourism has already begun. However, communities must be empowered to determine what type of tourism they want.
  • travellers paying a conservation-focused levy upon entering a country, such as those imposed in New Zealand and Botswana.
  • the donation of time, money or expertise to support environmental restoration as an integral part of the travel experience. For example, the Adventure Scientists initiative shows people with outdoor skills how to collect environmental information as they travel, providing new data for researchers.
  • businesses that “give back” by design. For example, Global Himalayan Expeditions empowers communities by electrifying remote villages in Ladakh, Kashmir. Trekkers co-finance solar panels and carry them as part of their travel experience.
  • ambitious industry standards, which ramp up over time, for sustainable management of environmental, cultural and human resources.

The UN Sustainable Development Group has suggested other changes, including:

  • a frequent flyer levy
  • incentives for domestic tourism
  • restrictions on flight advertising
  • no more airport expansions in high-income countries
  • better transport alternatives to aviation.



See earlier:


Environmental Audit Cttee inquiry into environmental damage of tourism (in UK and by Brits abroad)

Holidaymakers’ responsibility for foul beaches, overcrowding, traffic, plane carbon emissions, harm done by cruises and other environmental impacts will come under parliamentary scrutiny. The Commons Environmental Audit Committee (chaired by the remarkable Mary Creagh) has an inquiry to address problems caused by tourism, including aviation emissions, pollution, habitat damage etc in UK and abroad. Deadline for comments 13th September.  It will look at whether the UK government should play a greater role in offsetting the waste and damage caused by the tens of millions of Britons who go on holiday overseas each year – and of the impact on domestic tourism in the UK.  The Committee says global tourism is responsible for 5% of greenhouse gas emissions. People do not often consider the environmental, and climate, impacts of their holidays. “While there are some sustainable practices, we want to look closely at the government’s actions to ensure the economic, social and environmental impacts of tourism are minimised.” Due to ever cheaper flights, and zero tax on aviation fuel, the holiday business is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries and accounts for more than 10% of global GDP. Many countries have had to take strict measure to prevent serious damage done by excessive tourism, eg in Philippines, or Venice or Thailand.  Or US hiking trails.



Ever increasing numbers of city-breaks and short holidays ruining cities – and the climate

With rising affluence in much of the world, and flying being unrealistically cheap (as it pays no fuel duty, and almost no other taxes) people want as many short holidays and city breaks as they can get. This is starting to have very negative impacts on some of the cities most visited, eg. Barcelona. Growth is relentless. The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) even speaks about tourism as a right for all citizens, and their forecasts suggest increases from 1 billion international travellers today, to 1.8 billion by 2030.  But there is a huge price to pay in carbon emissions from all these trips and holidays, most of which is the flights.  Short breaks therefore, pollute more per night than longer breaks. And  you can fit more into your year. “The marketing department might prefer a Japanese tourist to Barcelona because on average they will spend €40 more than a French tourist – according to unpublished data from the Barcelona Tourist Board – but the carbon footprint we collectively pay for is not taken into account.” People are being persuaded by advertising and marketing, and a change in ethos of society, to take more short holidays – not one longer one.  A report in 2010 suggested that makes people the happiest. More trips = more carbon emissions.

IPBES report on global biodiversity loss. Comment on impact of tourism

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has published a report on the serious global loss of biodiversity. IPBES says:  “Long-distance transportation of goods and people, including for tourism, have grown dramatically in the past 20 years with negative consequences for nature overall. The rise in airborne and seaborne transportation of both goods and people, including a threefold increase in travel from developed and developing countries in particular, has increased pollution and significantly raised invasive alien species… Between 2009 and 2013, the carbon footprint from tourism rose 40% to 4.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide and overall 8% of the total greenhouse-gas emissions are from transport and food consumption that are related to tourism. The demand for nature-based tourism, or ecotourism, also has risen, with mixed effects on nature and local communities, including some potential for contributions to local conservation in particular when carried out at smaller scales.”